This is why you'll probably be eating American lobster soon

UK lobster: the world is no longer its oyster.

Those of you getting used to seeing cheap frozen lobsters in supermarket freezers and shaking your heads at the distinctly non-luxury pricetags, may be surprised to hear the UK is suffering a crustacean supply crisis.

According to Alistair Sinclair, chairman of the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation (SCFF), the UK’s ongoing triple-dip winter has seen grim weather on the East coast of Scotland wreck fishing gear, leaving lobstermen stuck on shore, and depleting stockpiles to the point of exhaustion.

“The boys haven’t been out for five months” warns Sinclair, whose organisation represents a £39m per year industry, “and when they do get out, they’re finding that a lot of the gear is damaged, so they’re having to spend more time on shore to repair it.”

The last year’s Scottish lobster catch was 90 per cent down year-on year, he says, and the ponds and vats in which the Autumn catch was stockpiled for distribution over the Christmas period are now long empty.

What comes next is a massive hike in UK-caught lobster prices - according to the BBC, the Scottish market has already seen them shoot from £15 to £25 per kilo in the last three weeks. Restaurants are hauling lobster dishes off menus, or worse yet, in Sinclair’s view at least, switching over to using imported North American stock.

It is, by and large, exports from Northeastern US and Canadian fisheries that lie behind the rash of cheap lobster appearing in the UK over the last few years – an economic shift also rooted in sweeping environmental change.

With cod, a major predator of young lobsters, being long scarce in the waters off America’s Eastern Seaboard, and warmer temperatures increasing the density of food available to young animals, lobster fisheries have boomed, leading to an unprecedented crash in prices.

The summer of 2012 saw Maine lobster prices collapse from around $4 per pound to just $2 per pound, spurring Maine’s Lobster Advisory Council to throw $3m of marketing money into convincing Americans to eat more lobster, and spurring exporters to push even more frozen decapod into overseas markets.

“I’ve eaten one of those £6 lobsters” says Sinclair, “or rather I should say, I’ve eaten part of one. I can assure you they are not the same as Scottish stock.”

But it’s not just budget Euro supermarket chains offering the overseas stock – relatively upmarket chains like London’s Burger & Lobster, which sells lobster at a flat price of £20, get all their stock from Canada, and do not expect to see prices increase as a result of the problems in Scotland.

Yet while there is an issue of quality at stake here, the greater worry is economic and social: with the UK gorging itself on American lobster and domestic prices skyrocketing, Sinclair says that a great deal of his federation’s 500 members stand to lose their livelihood altogether.

“We have to do something to catch up. The American fisheries are 20-30 years ahead of us” he says.

In order to close the gap, the SCFF is seeking government support for the construction and maintenance of lobster hatcheries: a facility measuring just six feet by six feet, Sinclair says, is capable of putting out five million lobsters per year, and would ensure a greater density of catch for those fisherman able to get out in bleak weather.

But until something shifts on this front, it seems UK consumers with a taste for lobster should get used to the taste of Eastern Atlantic stock.

Delicious. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.